Biking: Amtrak on a roll with new feature for cyclists

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Rolling a bike onto Amtrak's Capitol Limited, securing it to the wall of a specially-equipped baggage compartment, taking it down when we arrived in this western Maryland town and rolling it off the car was as easy as it sounds.

It took less than four minutes to roll on in Connellsville and less than four minutes to roll off in Cumberland. And those time periods included the disembarking and boarding of regular passengers in both towns.

I was one of six bicyclists invited to participate in a one-day trial run of Roll-On/Roll-Off from Connellsville to Cumberland. We replaced six cyclists who boarded in Pittsburgh and got off in Connellsville.

Four others rolled on for the run to Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Another quartet took their places for the final leg to Washington.

"It went very well," said Linda McKenna Boxx, president of the Allegheny Trail Alliance who organized the demonstration run and boarded the train in Connellsville for the 90-mile ride to Cumberland.

The Capitol Limited roughly parallels the Great Allegheny Passage from Pittsburgh to Cumberland and the C&O Canal Towpath from Cumberland to D.C.

Bicyclists now must box their bikes as checked baggage when traveling from Pittsburgh to D.C. or vice versa. There now are no baggage handlers between the two cities. Roll-On/Roll-Off would enable bicyclists to enter or leave the train at Connellsville, Cumberland, Martinsburg, W.Va., Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and Rockville, Md.

When the Capitol Limited pulled into the Connellsville station at 7:45 a.m. Tuesday, we handed up our bikes to an Amtrak employee and used a two-step yellow metal stool to get into the baggage compartment of a Superliner passenger car. The compartment needs a ceiling light for better visibility.

The loading process includes stepping on an Amtrak-designed spring-loaded U-shaped latch, similar to opening the lid of a kitchen trash can, lifting up the bike to place the front wheel on a hook on the wall, placing the front wheel into a grove to hold it in place and then releasing the spring-loaded latch to secure the rear wheel so it won't sway back and forth.

The ride to Cumberland overlooks the Youghiogheny River to Confluence and then stretches of the Casselman River and Wills Creek. The early morning fog gave way to sunshine that enhanced the fall foliage bordering the tracks and the mountains beyond.

"The Roll-on/Roll-off demonstration was a great success," said Bob Hand of Irwin, president of the Westmoreland Yough Trail Chapter and a board member of the Regional Trail Corporation. "It's an opportunity for Amtrak to provide a necessary service to bicyclists on the Great Allegheny Passage."

His comments were echoed by Colin and June Deakins of Somerset who are members of the Somerset County Trails to Trails Association. "Roll-On/Roll-Off is the answer to our prayers," June said.

"I found the [bike] racks to be efficient, fast, stable and easy to use," said Jeff O'Brien of Somerset County, the founder of Trailbook, the complete guidebook of services along the GAP and Towpath.

"Roll-On/Roll-Off will increase interest in the Towpath among Pittsburgh area riders. Bicycling the GAP and the Towpath is fun. Riding the train is fun. Combine the two and it's fun squared."

After disembarking in Cumberland, we pedaled a few blocks to the Cumberland Trail Connection, a full-service bike shop, for a 62-mile shuttle to Confluence and then a 28-mile bike ride back to Connellsville.

Josh Norris, our personable van driver, said his customers have included bicyclists from Europe, Africa, Central and South America and Asia.

P. S. The station in Connellsville has no restrooms, not even a Port-A-John/Jane.


Larry Walsh writes about recreational bicycling for the Post-Gazette. First Published October 18, 2013 8:31 PM


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